Chris Bosio

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

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AP

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

We have officially reached a Bullpen Revolution.

Never before in baseball history have relievers carried so much weight and importance as starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and earlier in games.

We see it in the slow winter, where even guys who aren't being signed as closers are still earning $7 or $8 million a season and being inked to multiyear deals.  

Meanwhile, the largest contract given out to a starting pitcher (as of this writing) is still the Cubs' three-year, $38 million pact with Tyler Chatwood.

"The money is shifting to the bullpen and teams are building super-bullpens," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention inside the Sheraton Grand Chicago earlier this month. "A lot of organizations are not expecting their starters to go deep into games anymore. 

"The pendulum swang a little bit too far in that direction, because if you're constantly pulling your starter before tehy face the order a third time, it puts a tremendous burden on your bullpen throughout the course of the regular season."

The Cubs saw that last fall, when their relievers experienced a prolonged drought of inconsistency and instability.

From the morning of Sept. 1 through the end of the postseason, the Cubs bullpen ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.38 ERA. Among playoff teams, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had worse marks and keep in mind, those numbers are skewed because both World Series teams saw bullpen implosions constantly throughout the seven-game Fall Classic.

Yet in the first half of the season, the Cubs posted the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.26 ERA), second to only the Dodgers (2.99) among National League teams.

"Our bullpen, I think, got a bit over maligned by the end of the year," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I think they were [out of gas]. Throughout the year, we could not throw enough strikes. That was almost like a disease that ran through our bullpen.

"Guys had their career worst strike-throwing years. But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year. We have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen that are gonna throw well for us."

In that same stretch from Sept. 1 onward, the Cubs were second only to the woeful Cincinnati Reds bullpen in walks per nine innings. On the season as a whole, Cubs relievers tied with the New York Mets for the second-highest BB/9 mark.

Hoyer is right: The Cubs featured a bunch of guys with their worst walk rates ever.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Koji Uehara and Justin Wilson all either approached or set new career highs in BB/9. The only relief pitcher who turned in a quality strike-throwing season was Brian Duensing, which is part of the reason why the Cubs re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year deal last week.

So how do the Cubs fix that issue?

For one, they're hoping the change in pitching coaches — from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey — will do the trick. Bosio is one of the most highly-respected pitching coaches in the game, but for whatever reason, oversaw that alarming increase in relief walks. A new voice and message could be enough to effect change.

Beyond that, the Cubs placed an emphasis on strike-throwing as they remade their bullpen this winter. 

Gone are Davis, Rondon and Uehara and in their stead are Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, two veterans who are adept at throwing strikes. Morrow ranked 18th in baseball last season in BB/9 (1.85) among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. That's a big part of the reason why the Cubs are so confident in Morrow's ability to close, even though he has just 18 career saves only two of which have come in this decade.

The Cubs are counting on a return to form from Justin Wilson, who walked just 37 batters in 119.2 innings from 2015-16 before doling out 19 free passes in 18.1 innings in a Cubs uniform last year.

Last season, manager Joe Maddon felt Edwards was getting too fine at points and trying to nibble to avoid getting hit hard, which led to an uptick in walks. But because the young flamethrower has such dynamic stuff, even if he lives in the strike zone, he should still find — Edwards has allowed just 44 hits in 102.1 innings the last two seasons.

The Cubs are also woke to the importance of keeping relievers fresh down the stretch.

The proof was in the pudding last postseason when all bullpens were "fried," Epstein said, especially by the time the World Series rolled around.

"We need to strike a balance," Epstein said. "We as an organization still put a lot of value on starting pitchers and starters' abilities to get through the order a third time because it really works in the long run — it allows your bullpen to stay fresher throughout the six months of the season."

The Cubs don't intend to wear out any pitcher, whether it's a reliever with a checkered injury history (Morrow), a starter getting up there in age (Jon Lester) or anybody else who takes the hill for the team in 2018.

The idea is to have the entire pitching staff strong and hitting their stride as October approaches.

But even with the weight placed on bullpens — especially in October — the Cubs know they still need more starting pitching depth because bullpens are so volatile.

"There's definitely a shifting dynamic in the game where there's increased importance on the 'pen and slightly less on the rotation because more innings are shifting to the bullpen," Epstein said at the MLB Winter Meetings last month. "But there's a contradictory dynamic which is relievers are a lot less predictable than starters.

"So if you react to the first dynamic that I described and put all your resources into the 'pen and then you end up becoming the victim of unpredictability, then you're in a really tough spot."

Cubs officially hire Jim Hickey as pitching coach, fill other coaching vacancies

Cubs officially hire Jim Hickey as pitching coach, fill other coaching vacancies

Joe Maddon's 2018 coaching staff came into focus Tuesday, with the Cubs officially announcing three moves.

The Cubs made Jim Hickey the team's pitching coach, making official what has been assumed for a while, that Maddon's former pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays would take over for Chris Bosio on the North Side.

Additionally, Brandon Hyde was moved from his role as the team's first base coach to become Maddon's bench coach, taking over for Dave Martinez, who is the new manager of the Washington Nationals.

And the Cubs announced that Will Venable will be the new first base coach after he was recently named a special assistant to president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

Hickey, a Chicago native, spent the past 11 seasons as the Rays' pitching coach, presiding over a litany of young arms during and after Maddon's tenure as the manager there, including James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb. Hickey was the pitching coach for a pair of World Series teams: the 2005 Houston Astros and the 2008 Rays.

Hickey's relationship with Cobb could be of particular interest this offseason, as the free-agent pitcher could be a target for the Cubs' front office.

Hyde has served as the Cubs' bench coach before, filling the role on Rick Renteria's staff in 2014. He spent the past three seasons as Maddon's first base coach, part of a staff that appeared in three straight National League Championship Series and won the 2016 World Series.

Venable spent nine seasons in the major leagues, wrapping up his playing career in 2016 after playing for the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers.

In addition to these moves to lock in Maddon's coaching staff, the Cubs also announced the addition of Jim Benedict as a special assistant. Benedict was most recently the vice president of pitching development for the Miami Marlins and has also worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees.

Cubs name Brandon Hyde - not David Ross - new bench coach

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USA TODAY

Cubs name Brandon Hyde - not David Ross - new bench coach

The Cubs coaching staff is nearly complete and no, David Ross does not currently have a role.

Brandon Hyde — not Grandpa Rossy — will take over as Cubs bench coach in 2018, moving from the first base coaching box to Joe Maddon's right-hand man:

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer confirmed the news on 670 The Score Thursday morning.

The Cubs did not want to lose Hyde to New York and he will take over the bench coach position for the second time in his Chicago tenure (he also served in the same role under Ricky Renteria in 2014).

This is the latest in a major shakeup on the Cubs coaching staff this winter. Five coaches have left Maddon's staff, with two — Davey Martinez and Eric Hinske — getting promotions as the Washington Nationals manager and Los Angeles Angels hitting coach, respectively.

The Cubs finished 2017 and a third straight trip to the NLCS with this coaching staff under Maddon:

Bench coach — Davey Martinez
Hitting coach — John Mallee
Assistant hitting coach — Eric Hinske
Pitching coach — Chris Bosio
First base coach — Brandon Hyde
Third base coach — Gary Jones

That coaching staff now looks completely different, just three weeks later:

Bench coach — Brandon Hyde
Hitting coach — Chili Davis
Assistant hitting coach — Andy Haines
Pitching coach — Jim Hickey
First base coach — TBA
Third base coach — Brian Butterfield

Lester Strode (bullpen coach), Henry Blanco (quality control coach), Chad Noble (bullpen catcher) and Mike Borzello (catching coach) are expected to remain in their roles as well as advanced scouting coordinators Nate Halm and Tommy Hottovy.

Ross is still currently a special assistant in the Cubs front office. It would've been hard to see him move to a demanding coaching role and miss so much time with his young family after an extremely busy first year of retirement.

The promotion of Hyde to a key role on the Cubs coaching staff will help maintain a sense of familiarity for the players amid a wild offseason shakeup. Hyde was already a part of the daily lineup workflow - letting players know who was starting and where they were hitting - and has been around since the early stages of the rebuild. He also served as a bench coach with the Florida Marlins for two years from 2010-11.